Test obscenity, taboo avoidance, and prescriptivism

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A little while back, there was a small media flap about the marking of the UK's GCSE (General Certification of Secondary Education) English exam back in 2006. The issue was an obscenity given as a response to one question, which nevertheless received a couple of marks. Controversy ensued. 

The news stories had to cope with reporting the obscenity, and that's of interest to us here at Language Log Plaza. In addition, the examiner compared the inappropriateness of the obscenity to the inappropriateness of using to preposition to with the adjective different — and such judgments on usage are another perennial topic here on Language Log.

Here's the beginning of the story from The Times (UK) of 30 June (hat tip to Rachael — that's spelled correctly — Churchill):

Markers award students for writing obscenities on GCSE papers

Write 'f*** off' on a GCSE paper and you'll get 7.5%. Add an exclamation mark and it'll go up to 11%

Pupils are being rewarded for writing obscenities in their GCSE English examinations even when it has nothing to do with the question.

One pupil who wrote "f*** off" was given marks for accurate spelling and conveying a meaning successfully.

And the beginning of the AP version (also of 30 June), based on the version in The Times (hat tip to Victor Steinbok):

Student Gets Credit for Expletive on Exam

A British high school student received credit for writing nothing but a two-word obscenity on an exam paper because the phrase expressed meaning and was spelled correctly.

The Times newspaper on Monday quoted examiner Peter Buckroyd as saying he gave the student – who wrote an expletive starting with f, followed by the word "off" – two points out of a possible 27 for the English paper.

The AP version gets at fuck off by circumlocution, The Times by using avoidance characters, a strategy that presents an interesting puzzle. I think that the intention of "f*** off" in the AP story is entirely clear, but what if the student had actually written "f*** off" (with the asterisks, but without the quotation marks) on the exam? How would you quote that? (Yes, I know that's not very likely, but a clever, or devious, student might want to communicate contempt while not wanting to get into trouble for using an obscenity on an exam.) We've looked at such cases here on Language Log, in connection with titles like Totally F***ed Up (a movie) and Watch Your F*cking Language  (a book), in which the asterisks are part of the titles. Since we lack a typographical distinction between "real" asterisks and avoidance asterisks, the only solution that I can see in print is to stipulate that the asterisks belong in the quoted material, which is clunky but accurate.

On to the marking of the exam. The news coverage focused on the student's "getting credit for" or "being rewarded for" using an obscenity, slanting the story towards disapproval, even outrage. The stories do get around to letting Peter Buckroyd explain himself:

The chief examiner, who is responsible for standards in exams taken by 780,000 candidates and for training for 3,000 examiners, told The Times: "It would be wicked to give it zero, because it does show some very basic skills we are looking for – like conveying some meaning and some spelling.

"It's better than someone that doesn't write anything at all. It shows more skills than somebody who leaves the page blank."

Mr Buckroyd says that he uses the example to teach examiners the finer points of marking. "It elucidates some useful points – it shows some nominal skills but no relevance to the task."

He also acknowledged that the language was inappropriate – but added that using the construction "different to" would also be inappropriate language.

The choice phrase, given in answer to the question "Describe the room you're sitting in", on a 2006 GCSE paper, was not punctuated. "If it had had an exclamation mark it would have got a little bit more because it would have been showing a little bit of skill," Mr Buckroyd said, "We are trying to give higher marks to the students who show more skills."

Note that Buckroyd gave the student a 2, out of 27, on this question — a clear fail.  You could quarrel, as many outraged commenters have, with Buckroyd's earnest attempts at fairness and consistency in marking, but you can't claim that he actually gave the student something for nothing.

I see no linguistic point in the grading issue, and ask commenters not to fix on this here on Language Log. You can add a comment to the Times story, or take it up on your own blog.

But there are two points of linguistic interest in the Times coverage. The first comes in the comments there, two of which focus on matters of usage: one commenter somewhat hesitantly criticizing the stranded preposition in "Describe the room you're sitting in", the other reviling the use of that as a relativizer with a human antecedent in "It's better than someone that doesn't write anything at all". Almost anyone who writes or talks about language is likely to pick up caustic criticism from people picking on usages they see as violating "the rules" of the language. These objections almost always come from the usage mythology, as in these two cases, which MWDEU demonstrates to be standard, and which even Paul Brians, in Common Errors in English Usage, classifies as "non-errors",

The second point of linguistic interest is in the body of the story, saying of Buckroyd:

He also acknowledged that the language was inappropriate – but added that using the construction "different to" would also be inappropriate language.

Buckroyd said "inappropriate language", but the more common label used by ordinary people is "bad language", and the label takes in not only taboo vocabulary and slurs, but also slang and non-standard usages (sometimes other vocabulary as well). The label is used for any sort of language (some) people disapprove of, though the different types don't form a natural class. In any case, Buckroyd presumably characterizes different to as "inappropriate language" because he believes it to be non-standard.

There is a tangled history here, summarized in the MWDEU entry for different from, than, to. The conclusion (p. 343):

… all three expressions have been in standard use since the 16th and 17th centuries and all three continue to be in standard use. [though different to is specifically British]

Each of the three can be defended on semantic grounds, and on the grounds of the practice of good writers. From MWDEU, p. 342:

From the 18th century the OED lists Addison with different from, Fielding with different to, and Goldsmith with different than.

Fowler "stoutly defends different to", but some British style guides object to it passionately, which is where Buckroyd probably got his notion that it's non-standard. In the face of the facts, I'd hope that different to is not marked as an error in exams like the GCSE — but I suspect that it is, in a sad victory for usage mythology.

It's worth asking why grammarians and usage advisers have spent so much time and energy — since the 18th century! — arguing against one or another of these variants. This is one case, among a great many (including, by the way, adviser vs. advisor, so please don't write me about my spelling of this word), in which the critics seem to be adhering (implicitly) to the principle of One Right Way: if the critics see no semantic or stylistic difference between variants, then their task is to select one variant as the "correct" one and to proscribe the other(s). But there's nothing wrong with variation according to personal taste, or whatever.

By the way, if you're inclined to favor the "original" variant (and to object to other variants as innovations), different to is not a usage you should want to focus your scorn on: to (and unto) are the oldest usages, with from coming in a bit later (Shakespeare provides the OED's first cite), and than a later innovation (in the 17th century, not exactly recently).



27 Comments

  1. Garrett Wollman said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 4:47 pm

    Arnold writes, "Since we lack a typographical distinction between "real" asterisks and avoidance asterisks, the only solution that I can see in print is to stipulate that the asterisks belong in the quoted material, which is clunky but accurate."

    I assume by this you mean usage like the parenthetical "punctuation theirs"? I suppose in theory one could use a scholarly "[sic]" but many would read into that a negative connotation.

  2. Ellen K. said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 5:03 pm

    As "different to" is unfamiliar to me (I'm American) and doesn't make sense for me, I'm interested in the semantic reasoning, and/or seeing an example (taken from the real world).

  3. Karen said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 5:54 pm

    I don't know what the semantic reasoning is (probably just a parallel with "similar to", I'd imagine) but here are a number of real world examples:

    Irish Times, Sunday July 13 2008(http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2008/0709/1215537641189.html) Ireland in 2008 is very different to how it was in the dark days of the 1980s. And the credit for that transformation goes to the Irish people.

    Science Daily, Sunday 2 2008 (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080228100735.htm): Future 'Battlegrounds' for Habitat Conservation Very Different to Those in Past

    PC News, Monday June 30 2008 (http://www.computerandvideogames.com/article.php?id=191954): Lich King quests different to 'boar-killing' … Detailing one such quest, PC Zone wrote: "The available quest was a little different to your average kill-30-of-this number.

    Headline ABC News (the Australian ABC, not the US one) Thursday June 26 2008 (http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/06/26/2287102.htm): Canberra neglect 'different to interstate cases'

    Cough (medical journal) September 2005 (http://www.coughjournal.com/content/1/1/7): In summary, current data support that management guidelines for paediatric cough should be different to those in adults as the aetiological factors and treatment in children significantly differ to those in adults.

  4. Jeffrey H. said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 5:55 pm

    There's an old joke about the college professor who asked as the single question on the final exam "what did you learn in this course?" He mentioned to a fellow professor that one student had received a grade of "A-" for answering the question "Not a dam thing." "How could you give an A- for that answer?" his colleague asked. "Well, I couldn't give him an 'A'–he spelled "damn" wrong!"

  5. Karen said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 5:55 pm

    Shoot. Science Daily is March 2 2008.

  6. John Lawler said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 6:09 pm

    From Google (incidentally, the first 5 items that pop up on a search for quotated "different to" are usage discussions, including this post):

    Ireland in 2008 is very different to how it was in the dark days of the 1980s.

    Coaching the Australian national side is no different to coaching a team of New Zealanders, according to Wallabies coach Robbie Deans.

    In summary, current data support that management guidelines for paediatric cough should be different to those in adults as the aetiological factors and treatment in children significantly differ to those in adults.

    (Note that the last one uses differ to as well as different to.) In all of these, to is simply used instead of the more common from.

  7. Robert said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 6:18 pm

    Ellen K.:

    A quick search on Google using the query: "different to" -grammar -usage gives this example from Ireland:
    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2008/0709/1215537641189.html

    Of course, when searching for examples you have to ignore turns of phrase such as "that seems different to me".

    The semantic reasoning is the same as the reasoning that gives us "similar to" and "identical to".

  8. lynneguist said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 6:36 pm

    If anyone's interested in an American/British take on the different from/than/to issue, I wrote one here some time ago.

  9. Ray Girvan said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 10:22 pm

    By coincidence, I just wrote to the local paper on the "that" vs "who" issue, in response to a prescriptivist peeve here, with a short list of examples from prestigious sources.

    *"a woman that feareth the Lord" (Proverbs 31:30, King James Bible)
    *"Then I saw the man that sat upon the cloud" (John Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress)
    *"While I stood thus amusing the Lady that was with me" (Daniel Defoe, Roxana)
    *"The man that hath no music in himself" (William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice)
    *"He, the most excellent Man that can be imagined" (Jane Austen, Plan of a Novel)
    *"I am the girl that dragged little Oliver back to old Fagin's" ( Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist)
    *"The lady that was here last night" (Charles Dickens, Bleak House)
    *"The Man that was Used Up" (Edgar Allan Poe)
    *"The man I want to meet is the man that Candida married" (George Bernard Shaw, Candida)
    *"The Girl That I Marry" (Irving Berlin)

  10. MRB said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 4:20 am

    Hello,
    I've been interested in the "douche" and "douchebag" phenomenon. It's an insult I've always more-or-less known about, but it seems to be exploding, especially among the 20-somethings that are my general peer group.

    I used to think douchebag to be kindred with scumbag, implying a skeevy, sketchy man; where as now it seems to be used against pretentious scenesters and types with over-inflated egos. Is there a method do old slang insults being turned into new slang insults against a (somewhat) different group? Has the rise in "d-bag" as an insult been documented elsewhere?

    Thanks!

  11. James Wimberley said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 6:26 am

    On asterisks in quotations: I think I'm a prescriptivist literalist here. A citation in quotation marks claims to be an exact record, and the citer is expected to mark any emphases or insertions that are not in the original. In reported speech you can be more flexible, and paraphrase, bowdlerization and euphemism are acceptable as long as you say true to the meaning of the original. Thus:

    He received an anonymous note: "Fuck off, and that goes for Jim [Wimberley] too!"
    He received an anonymous note telling him and Wimberley to f*** off.

  12. Theo Vosse said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 6:26 am

    As to your question: "but what if the student had actually written "f*** off" (with the asterisks, but without the quotation marks) on the exam? How would you quote that?", I would answer: "f\*\*\* off", of course.

  13. Doctor Deaf said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 7:10 am

    Buckroyd presumably characterizes different to as "inappropriate language" because he believes it to be non-standard.

    There is also the use of inappropriate language — oops…

    There is also the use of 'inappropriate language' (perhaps it's a more British use, I don't know) that refers to the language simply not being appropriate to the context. Blasphemy or swearing, or both, is often cited, but just as inappropriate might surely be something like "go away!", or "have sexual intercourse!" for "fuck off!".

  14. George Junior said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 9:33 am

    Different to/different than

    A while back (Nov 2003), The Guardian newspaper drew readers' attention to what it took to be bad usage in a speech by President Bush in the following manner:-

    'Yet Mr Bush suggested that terrorism now represented the most potent threat in the history of the US. "The war on terror is different than (sic) any war America has ever fought," he said.'

    That "sic" is not just prescriptive, it's downright condescending. For The Guardian, American English is not just different, it's wrong!

  15. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 9:50 am

    MRB's comment about "douche(bag)" is a comment on Ben Zimmer's recent "Times bowdlerizes column…" posting, not on this posting of mine.

  16. John Cowan said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 10:27 am

    "Different than" isn't specifically American, and neither is complaining about it. "Different to" is specifically not American, however. "Different from" draws complaints from nobody, so if you want a quiet life, use it.

  17. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 10:30 am

    To Ellen K., who asks about the semantics of "to" to "different": as Karen and Robert have suggested, this is the "to" of "similar to". That is, it's the "to" of comparison, as in "compare X to Y" and "liken X to Y". "Different to" is older than "similar to", but the most venerable adjective in this field is "like", with "like to" 'similar to' having OED cites from ca. 1200 on.

  18. Ray Girvan said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 10:46 am

    > Mr Bush: "The war on terror is different than (sic) …
    That "sic" is not just prescriptive, it's downright condescending. For The Guardian, American English is not just different, it's wrong!

    Though "sic" is also used to indicate that usages that are correct, but nonstandard/unfamiliar to the reader, have been faithfully reported.

  19. Robert Coren said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 11:11 am

    I confess myself surprised to learn that "different than" dates back to the 17th century, but then I am constantly undergoing such surprises. I also confess that it puzzles me; it's the only instance of a usage of than that I can think of that doesn't involve a modifier in comparative form "better than", "quicker than", etc.). Of course by now I have learned not to expect even standard usages to follow strict rules of logic or consistency.

    Nonetheless, I am reminded of a family conversation in which my then-teenaged brother used "different than", and was challenged by my father, who asked: "Do you differ than us?" (To which he then whimsically added: "Are you differ than us?":)

  20. Sili said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 11:28 am

    A very unscientific poll on modern usage, re "different":

    http://www.irregularwebcomic.net/polls/poll0098.html

  21. Edward Vitasek said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 12:47 pm

    @Robert Coren: "it's the only instance of a usage of than that I can think of that doesn't involve a modifier in comparative form"

    Other than? ("other than that", "none other than"…)

  22. Bob Lieblich said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

    After law school I spent a year clerking for an appellate judge. One of the judge's colleagues (a Texan) circulated a draft opinion that included the phrase "different to." With the superciliousness of youth, I pointed this out to "my" judge and suggested he urge the author to correct it. My judge (also a Texan) replied that he saw nothing wrong with "different to" and indeed had used it himself. I offer this as evidence that one must be wary of saying that "different to" is "not US." (Even most Texans now concede that Texas is part of the US.)

  23. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 2:23 pm

    To Robert Coren: Edward Vitasek has pointed out "other" as a trigger for "than", and there's also "rather" ("I'd rather go than stay") and a construction with fronted "hardly", "scarcely", or "barely" ("Hardly had I entered the room than the children began screaming"), though some manuals deprecate the construction with "than" rather than "when".

    There are also a number of non-standard constructions with other triggers for "than". I'll eventually post an inventory of these, in connection with "sooner than later" 'sooner rather than later' (yes, it's non-standard).

    By the way, Otto Jespersen suggested long ago that "different" can take "than" because it is an implicit comparative.

  24. Nancy said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

    In California, we score the "short composition" section of the California English Language Development Test using a 5-point rubric (scores of 0 to 4). A student who wrote "fuck off" would not receive a 0. A 0 is to be assigned only in cases where the response is blank, unintelligible, illegible, in another language, or copied from the prompt. Since both words are English, and spelled correctly, the response would receive a score of 1. If the student had written f*ck off, with the asterisk, leaving only one correctly spelled English word, the score would probably be reduced to a 0.

  25. Robert Coren said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 5:05 pm

    I was about as certain as I ever am about anything that if I said "it's the only instance I can think of", one or more persons would provide other examples (which of course I could have come up with myself if I had thought about it harder). Thank you.

  26. dr pepper said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 7:15 pm

    Another case of `to' where `from' would be more common:

    I can hear the bullfrog calling me
    Wonder if my rope's still [b]hanging to[/b] a tree

    — Creedence Clearwater, "Green River".

  27. Jens Fiederer said,

    July 29, 2008 @ 1:22 pm

    Theo Vosse got the jump on my answer, but was a bit short on explanation.

    In computer languages, "*" is often used in patterns to match any sequence of letters (possibly 0). Thus "f*** off" would match "fence off", "fin off", etc. Of course, so would "f* off", the additional asterisks would not be necessary (typically a different character is used to indicate a single letter, for example "?", so "f??? off" would match "flog off", but not "fence off" or "fin off").

    When an ACTUAL "*" character (or any other "special" character, including backslash itself) is desired in the pattern, it is "escaped" with a backslash, so "\\r* yet\?\*" would match "\ready yet?*" but not "\r yeti".

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